Biography, Memoir/Autobiography, Non-Fiction

Jell-O Girls by Allie Rowbottom

I’ve been half-heartedly participating in a book club that used to be mine and has now migrated into someone else’s, but I’ve still had a foot in the door. When a fellow member picked Jell-O Girls for today’s discussion, I was thrilled to finally read nonfiction AND get to talk about it. Downside, my opinion and personal experiences seemed to be in the minority…

Synopsis

In 1899, Allie Rowbottom’s great-great-great-uncle bought the patent to Jell-O from its inventor for $450. The sale would turn out to be one of the most profitable business deals in American history, and the generations that followed enjoyed immense privilege – but they were also haunted by suicides, cancer, alcoholism, and mysterious ailments.

More than one hundred years after that deal was struck, Rowbottom’s mother, Mary, was diagnosed with the same incurable cancer that had claimed her own mother’s life. Determined to combat what she had come to consider the “Jell-O Curse” and her looming mortality, Mary began obsessively researching her family’s past, bent on understanding the origins of her illness and the impact on her life of both Jell-O and the traditional American values the company championed. Before she died in 2015, Mary began to send Rowbottom boxes of her research and notes, in the hope that her daughter might write what she could not. Jell-O Girls is the liberation of that story.

Review

I’ve been in a bit of a book-finishing rut for the past month and a half. All year I’d been flying through books and then, as soon as my grandmother got sick and passed away, I haven’t wanted to touch a book. Until now. Part of getting back to my normal life it seems must include reading (which is very logical given my occupation, I just hadn’t felt like opening a book), and these days, reading means primarily nonfiction. It’s been a year of my near complete lack of interest in fiction and YA (my two staples for the past two decades), so when book club finally veered back to nonfiction, I was thrilled – I hadn’t actually finished a new book club book since, uh, January 2017.

If I were to write a memoir, it would be a lot like Jell-O Girls. The publisher summary doesn’t exactly capture the spirit of the memoir – it sensationalizes it more than needed. Allie Rowbottom faces an interesting inheritance – money from Jell-O which supported her artist mother her entire life, and a “curse” so to speak, which is basically her family trying to find a source of blame for poor genes. I was intrigued when I picked it up, and it held me captivated until I finished it – in 48 hours. And then I went to log it in Goodreads and see what other people thought about it. Oh boy.

I need to start holding off on looking a Goodreads reviews until I’ve finished a book. I adored Jell-O Girls and thought it one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. It seems, however, I am in the minority when it comes to most readers and I think that there are two primary reasons for this. Firstly, the integration of the Jell-O story with that of Allie’s family doesn’t always work particularly well. It’s nice, and a refreshing interlude at times, to see how Jell-O has changed over the years, but it really has very little to do with Allie, her mother Mary, and her grandmother, Midge, our three female protagonists of the memoir. Second, if you’ve never experienced any of the traumatic events and family situations the main characters experienced, it can be easy to discount them as Rich White People Problems, as most people in my book club, and on the interwebs of Goodreads, seemed to do.

Those two things considered, as someone who has been the primary caretaker to a family member slowly dying of cancer, just lost her grandmother, has had to handle the fact that her mother will most likely die of cancer given that she’s already a three-time survivor, whose parents are divorced, whose family has a long history of mental illness, when you’ve struggled with anorexia nervosa and developed OCD tendencies, passed out and not remembered the last time you ate because you couldn’t control anything in your life except what you ate, well. You could say Allie’s Jell-O Girls is the story of me and my mother’s family.

We’re all a little crazy, humanity proves this. And when you’ve experienced very similar situations to Allie and you want to convey just how magnificently she captures the feeling of waiting for hours on end in the surgical waiting room that you struggled for years to find words to describe, you want to share that with people. You want to talk about just how important this book is to you, not just because you think it’s good, but because it let you know that you are far from alone. That other people have experienced the same set of traumas, self-inflicted and otherwise, that you have. That it’s okay to feel like you’re losing your mind and that you are not alone.

Despite working in a bookstore and talking about books for a living and recommending countless books to people over the last few years, I don’t actually have the chance to sit down and talk about books in detail with many people. I get to give people my thirty-second elevator pitch on a book and hope they’ll buy it. And part of the success of the store I work at is that all of the employees have their own genres of interest – Su reads things dark and twisty, Pam reads contemporary women’s and historical fiction, Mary reads commercial nonfiction and fiction, Jennifer is our children’s buyer and can tell you anything and everything about all the picture books on the shelves, Kaz specializes in LGBT literature, PK reads business and history, Hadley reads the little known random books published by small, academic and indie presses, Staci reads just like my mom, thrillers and mysteries from Baldacci to Scottoline, and I read a little bit of everything in between. There’s not a whole lot of overlap. Therefore, enter book club – the perfect opportunity to discuss books with (mostly) like-minded individuals.

I miss picking all the books (I am aware that this is very selfish). I miss it being a way to support the store (I’m now the only one who doesn’t buy the book on Amazon or from B&N). I miss having productive discussions about interesting books. No one likes to feel like they’re under attack or being misunderstood when they choose a book or have a specific feeling about a book. And I love Jell-O Girls. In my 29 years of existence and of the 220 books I’ve read since I started working at the bookstore in 2015, it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I don’t care if the rest of the world disagrees with me. I will praise it for handling life situations that so many people find difficult to talk about. So please, ignore the plethora of poor ratings on websites. Ratings don’t capture the spirit of the book. If you think reading this book would benefit you, your family, please. Take a look at it.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780316510615 • 388 pages • published July 2018 by Little, Brown and Company • average Goodreads rating 3.2 out of 5 stars • read in October 2018

Allie Rowbottom’s Website

Jell-O Girls on Goodreads

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Jell-O Girls

Biography, Non-Fiction

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown

I’ve always had a certain fascination with Britain’s royal family, ever since Princess Diana died. When The Crown started airing, I was watching from the beginning, and, like most, discovered what a volatile character Princess Margaret was. So, as per usual when it comes to books, when our publisher rep for Macmillan told me there would be ARCs for this book, I begged her for one immediately!

Synopsis

She made John Lennon blush and left Marlon Brando tongue-tied. She iced out Princess Diana and humiliated Elizabeth Taylor. Andy Warhol photographed her. Gore Vidal revered her. Francis Bacon heckled her. Peter Sellers was madly in love with her. For Pablo Picasso, she was the object of sexual fantasy.

Princess Margaret aroused passion and indignation in equal measure. To her friends, she was witty and regal. To her enemies, she was rude and demanding. In her 1950s heyday, when she was seen as one of the most glamorous and desirable women int eh world, her scandalous behavior made headlines. But by the time of her death in 2002, she had come to personify disappointment. One friend said he had never known an unhappier woman. The tale of Princess Margaret is Cinderella in verse: hope dashed, happiness mislaid, life mishandled.

Such an enigmatic and divisive figure demands a reckoning that is far from the usual fare. Combining interviews, parodies, dreams, parallel lives, diaries, announcements, lists, catalogues, and essays, Craig Brown’s Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret is a kaleidoscopic experiment in biography and a mediation on fame and art, snobbery and deference, bohemia and high society.

Review

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Princess Margaret could, at her best, be described as lacking direction, and at worst, a terrible human being. It is also worth remembering that Vanessa Kirby, the wonderful actress who portrays Margaret on The Crown, is not actually Princess Margaret which I had to remind myself of repeatedly.

The woeful tale of Princess Margaret, as I’ve taken to calling it, is, as some have described, Cinderella in reverse. I disagree. Cinderella, regardless of her circumstances, was still charming and delightful. Which some people seemed to have thought of Princess Margaret, but doesn’t seem to be the prevailing impression of her. However, what one’s personal opinions of the Princess, and whether we should really judge a woman who grew up in a very different era in a very different circumstance than 99.999999999% of the world’s population, is a discussion for a different day. Today, I will try to focus on the book itself, and less on my judgemental opinions of its subject.

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret is just that, 99 short vignettes about her life, of which about 90 are true and 9 are hypotheticals – tales of what Margaret’s life would have been had she made a different decision at key, often romantic, points in her life – i.e. married Peter Townsend, been seduced by Picasso, etc. The vignettes are snarky and satirical, which, once I Googled who Craig Brown was in British society, made a great deal more sense than they had before I did a little digging into the author’s background.

The best analogy I have to Ninety-Nine Glimpses is that of a train/carwreck. It’s terrible, but you just can’t help but stare. Or in this case, turn the pages. Brown covers every bit of her life from the tales of the little princesses’ governess/nanny Crawfie to her later years and the burning of the letters towards the end of her life. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a Queen’s little sister, of which history has given us very few, Ninety-Nine Glimpses is a book for the ages.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $28.00 • 9780374906047 • 432 pages • originally published in the UK September 2017, published in the US August 2018 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux • average Goodreads rating 3.73 out of 5 • read in August 2018

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Princess Margaret2

Contemporary, Fiction

Austenland by Shannon Hale

It’s been a slow blog week – Laura was visiting from London so most of my free time was occupied with good old fashioned sister time. And today I had to say goodbye to her until I visit her in London in June, so I figured I’d go Austen today in her honor!

Synopsis

Jane is a young New York woman who can never seem to find the right man – perhaps because of her secret obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. But when a wealthy relative bequeaths to her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-obsessed women, Jane’s fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become more real than she ever could have imagined. Is this total immersion in a fake Austenland enough to make Jane kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own?

Review

Austenland is one of the few books where I watched the movie before I read the book. Usually I have a hard stop rule against this, but… I really wanted to watch the movie when it came out. Mostly because I, like Laura, like Jane Austen, and secondly because I love Keri Russell who plays protagonist Jane. The movie was entertaining, and reminded me of another retelling of Pride & Prejudice I liked, Me & Mr. Darcy, a book I enjoyed in college.

I debated if the fact that I already knew how the story would end if I would enjoy reading the book after seeing the movie and I am happy to report that… I did! I never really harbored a Mr. Darcy fantasy as many of my friends growing up did, but I can appreciate him as a character and, while I wouldn’t want my husband to be anything like him, I can suspend reality for the sake of reading and lose myself in Jane’s world for a bit. It’s a fun read and Shannon Hale’s writing is always decent, her storytelling compelling.

Continuing my present audiobook obsession, I listened to Austenland and found that the reader, for the fact that she wasn’t Keri Russell, sounded a lot like Keri Russell, which made me really want to watch the movie. When I did, I was reminded of an incident in the film that, viewed now through the 2018 #MeToo lens, caused me to squirm. Jane is assaulted by an intoxicated male in the book, and subsequently in the movie. It is something that Jane does not report and it is not mentioned again after it happens. It just goes away because, terrifyingly, at the time, it was considered normal. Something that women just had to deal with – the unwanted and unencouraged advances of men they had no interest in. For a book just over 10 years old to treat such an event as normal, makes me simultaneously disheartened and elated. Disheartened that women had to go through these experiences without the expectation of any sort of help after they occurred, and elated, because times are finally starting to change.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.00 • 9781596912861 • 196 pages • originally published May 2007, this edition published June 2008 by Bloomsbury Publishing • average Goodreads rating 3.54 out of 5 stars • read in April 2018

Shannon Hale’s Website

Austenland on Goodreads

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Austenland

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan

A few years ago I picked this book up and thought it looked adorable and perfect for a friend. A perfect chick-lity read, a book about books, that she would love. Two years later, I found the audiobook on Overdrive I figured it was time I read it as well.

Synopsis

Nina Redmond is a literary matchmaker. Pairing a reader with that perfect book is her passion… and also her job. Or at least it was. Until yesterday she was a librarian in the hectic city. But now the job she loved is no more.

Determined to make a new life for herself, Nina moves to a sleepy village many miles away. There she buys a van and transforms it into a mobile bookshop that she drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, changing one life after another with the power of storytelling.

From helping her grumpy landlord deliver a lamb to sharing picnics with a charming train conductor who serenades her with poetry, Nina discovers there’s plenty of adventure, magic, and soul in a place that’s beginning to feel like home… a place where she just might be able to writer her own happy ending.

Review

About a year and a half ago, the big book club at the bookstore I work at read The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin and told my boss, P. K., who moved to the US from India 40 years ago, that the main character, the bookstore owner A. J., reminded them of him. Needless to say, the rest of the staff were curious and had to read this book and it quickly became a favorite among us all. As someone who succeeded in landing her present job by telling said boss that my life goal was to be Meg Ryan’s character in You’ve Got Mail, I wondered if there was a book about books with a main character like me.

Well, I’ve found her. Jenny Colgan, thank you for creating Nina and then letting her out of your head to play with the rest of us. There’s a certain amount of belief that has to be suspended to really embrace Nina’s story – there are definitely moments when you shake your head and think, really? That’s really how that situation unfolded? I have to think there’s a certain amount of magical realism at play in The Bookshop on the Corner to have Nina’s life work out so well. But her approach to life is almost always positive and with an air of Lizzie & Mr. Darcy strewn about the tale, it is an enjoyable one and got me out of my fiction slump! Seriously, in the last 7 months, I’ve read two works of fiction. Which is just crazy for me, lover of all things historical fiction and fantasy.

While I greatly enjoyed The Bookshop on the Corner, this is one of the few books I don’t think I’ll be enthusiastically recommending to all of my bookstore followers as it is fairly out of my ordinary reading habits, but also probably why it broke my slump! So, if you are in need of a bookish “palate cleanser,” The Bookshop on the Corner is for you!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $14.99 • 9780062467256 • 368 pages • published (USA) September 2016 by William Morrow & Company • average Goodreads rating 3.87 out of 5 stars • read in March 2018

Jenny Colgan’s Website

The Bookshop on the Corner on Goodreads

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Bookshop on the Corner

History, Non-Fiction

The Little Book of Feminist Saints by Julia Pierpont

Welcome to Women’s History Month! This month I will try to focus my reviews on books that discuss women in history and as I’ve read quite a few, it shouldn’t be too hard!

Synopsis

In this luminous volume, New York Times bestselling writer Julia Pierpont and artist Manjit Thapp match short, vibrant, and surprising biographies with stunning full-color portraits of secular female “saints” champions of strength and progress. These women broke ground, broke ceilings, and broke molds including:

Maya Angelou – Jane Austen – Ruby Bridges – Rachel Carson – Shirley Chisholm – Marie Curie & Irene Joliot Curie – Isadora Duncan – Amelia Earhart – Artemisia Gentileschi – Grace Hopper – Dolores Huerta – Frida Kahlo – Billie Jean King – Audre Lorde – Wilma Mankiller – Toni Morrison – Michelle Obama – Sandra Day O’Connor – Sally Ride – Eleanor Roosevelt – Margaret Sanger – Sappho – Nina Simone – Gloria Steinem – Kanno Sugako – Harriet Tubman – Mae West – Virginia Woolf – Malala Yousafzai

Review

Julia Pierpont starts off The Little Book of Feminist Saints with a story in her prologue about playing Peter Pan as a young girl. Immediately I knew I was going to enjoy reading little stories about the women she included in the book because of that story – I always played Peter Pan. Always.

Each of the women included are given their own day, just as Saints are, and the information on each page includes unique and inspirational information. The women included are a fairly diverse bunch and I enjoyed learning more about each of them. It is the perfect gift book for your favorite women!

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $18.00 • 9780399592744 • 208 pages • published March 2018 by Random House • average Goodreads rating 4.18 out of 5 stars • read in March 2018

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Little Book of Feminist Saints

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult, Young Adult

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares

I have been best friends with Tibby, Carmen, Lena and Bridget for more than half my life now. The summer before I turned fourteen, I was attempting to walk to the Barnes and Noble of Virginia Beach with Moppy in order to keep ourselves busy while Mom drove Laura home to get her braces off. After wandering the parking lot in sweltering heat for the better part of a half hour, we finally found the beloved bookstore and I managed to stumble upon my four new best friends. I read most of the book that day in the store and I was beyond hooked. In 2011, nearly ten years after the release of the first book, Ann Brashares brought our best friends back, now in their late 20s and living completely separate lives, and gives them the biggest tragedy anyone could experience to cope with.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Synopsis

Four very different friends. One pair of magical pants. And a summer apart… We, the Sisterhood, hereby instate that following rules to govern the use of the Traveling Pants. 1. You must never wash the Pants. 2. You must never double-cuff the Pants. It’s tacky. There will never by a time when this will not be tacky. 3. You must never say the word “phat” while wearing the Pants. You must also never think “I am fat” while wearing the Pants. 4. You must never let a boy take off the Pants (although you may take them off yourself in his presence). 5. You must not pick your nose while wearing the Pants. You may, however, scratch casually at your nostril while really kind of picking. 6. Upon our reunion, you must follow the proper procedures for documenting your time in the Pants. 7. You must write to your Sisters throughout the summer, no matter how much fun you are having without them. 8. You must pass the Pants along to your Sisters according to the specifications set down by the Sisterhood. Failure to comply will result in a severe spanking upon our reunion. 9. You must not wear the Pants with a tucked-in shirt and belt. See Rule #2. 10. Remember: Pants = love. Love your pals. Love yourself.

Series Review

If you broke the foursome into their “stereotypes,” it would certainly be a great curiosity as to how they ever became friends. Fiery Carmen has a temper that would make even the fiercest warrior quake; shy, talented artist Lena is unsure of herself; Bridget’s mom died young and athletic Bridget is extremely reckless, and Tibby, older than her younger siblings by 12 years, feels like no one in her family understands her and rebels accordingly. They really only became friends because their mothers took an aerobics class together while pregnant and they were all born in September.

In The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, the girls spend their first summer apart and away from Bethesda. Carmen’s off to see her dad in South Carolina (where she learns he’s about to be remarried), Lena’s trekking to Greece with her grandparents (where she meets the love of her life), Bridget heads off to Baja for soccer camp where she flirts with her older soccer coach and Tibby feels neglected, left at home to work a menial job and, while trying to make a video that is worthwhile in an effort to further her directing career, she meets Bailey, a young cancer patient who has a profound effect on her life. Second Summer of the Sisterhood, Girls in Pants and Forever in Blue chronicle each subsequent summer of the girls’ lives in similar fashion, three leave and one girl is at home, and they send the pants around to each other. Each book is written from all four girls viewpoints.

I could, and can still, identify with all four girls and when I first picked up The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, I felt like I’d finally found the literary version of my middle school best friends, Ashlyn, Melanie and Nina. Who we each would be and whether we’d fit into the same pair of jeans, I’m unsure, but I do know that there’s a bit of all four girls in me.  The final book, Sisterhood Everlasting, upset many of my friends and my little  sister when they read it – it starts with tragedy, and I’ll say it straight off, one of the four is no longer with us. The girls are 28, living separate lives and barely in touch. Until one reaches out to bring them to Greece to reconnect. It is here that mysteries begin and the gradual reveal of secrets begins as the young women reconnect with each other and other beloved characters from the first four books. Ann Brashares let her girls grow with her readers and for that I am forever grateful. Sisterhood Everlasting is heartbreaking, achingly beautiful, ridiculously sad, and yet, there is a light at the end of the tunnel and our farewell to our best friends is a satisfying one. The books, the friendships, it’s all beautiful and I honestly cannot watch the movies or even the book trailers without tearing up over what happens.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars for the series

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780385730587 • 336 pages • first published September 2001, this edition published March 2003 by Ember • average Goodreads rating 3.76 out of 5 stars • read in July 2002

Ann Brashares’ Website

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128-Sisterhood Everlasting

Fantasy, Fiction, New Adult

City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte

City of Dark Magic is a testament to how well Ben knows me. One fall day, a few years ago, we were partaking in one of our favorite Saturday afternoon activities of perusing the shelves of the local independent bookstore (where I now work) when he called me over to his usual spot along the fantasy wall. When I finally pulled myself away from the bestsellers long enough to mosey over, he handed me a very colorful book, City of Dark Magic, and the synopsis read like that of the dream book I never knew I’d find.

Synopsis

Prague is a threshold to another world – where the fabric of time is thin – a city steeped in blood. Once a city of enormous wealth and culture, Prague has been home to emperors, alchemists, astronomers, and, it’s even been whispered, portals to hell. When music student Sarah Weston lands a lucrative summer job at Prague Castle cataloging Beethoven’s manuscripts, she has no idea how dangerous her life is about to become.

Shortly after she arrives, strange things begin to happen. Sarah learns that her mentor, who had been working at the castle, may not have committed suicide after all. Soon she finds herself in a cloak-and-dagger chase with a handsome, time-traveling prince; a four-hundred-year-old dwarf; and a U.S. senator who will do anything to keep her dark secrets hidden.

Review

Fantasy, adventure, music, political intrigue, a protagonist named Sarah, and Prague as the setting? I couldn’t read this book fast enough! Sarah is, by far, one of my favorite protagonists I’ve ever been introduced to, tied for the top spot with Amy Haskel of Diana Peterfreund’s Ivy League series. She fears little and is unabashedly who she wants to be. Sarah doesn’t apologize for being herself, even when her brazen personality can offend even the most liberal contemporary, and that is what I love most about her.

Prague is my top travel wishlist destination and the more I read about it, in both fiction and nonfiction works, the more my desire to see the city of dark magic deepens. Sarah experiences the city in all its splendors, and it’s not so splendid features as well. Beethoven is her guide as she readies a music exhibit for the Lobkowicz Palace museum after the former curator, her mentor, is found dead outside the palace from an apparent suicide attempt. Before long, Sarah discovers there is so much more to the story when she retraces her mentor’s, and Beethoven’s, steps throughout the city upon discovering a time shifting drug one evening with the dashing prince Max.

A great deal happens in this book and there are about ten different stories being intertwined together but that made me enjoy it more. I cannot stand stories where it is all about the main character and written as if the rest of the world doesn’t exist. While City of Dark Magic may take it a little too far in the opposite direction, it meant that I never found a boring moment the entire time I was reading. Really, I cannot emphasize how much I love this book and all the magnificently entertaining intertwining stories.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.00 • 9780143122685 • 448 pages • published November 2012 by Penguin Books • average Goodreads rating 3.47 out of 5 • read in December 2012

Magnus Flyte’s Website

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Sarah Weston - City of Dark Magic

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

Jessica Darling quintet by Megan McCafferty

Jessica Darling helped me survive high school. I was first introduced to the delightfully snarky, sarcastic and spunky teen heroine of Sloppy Firsts when I was a freshman in speech and debate practice after school one autumn afternoon back in 2003. A frenemy of mine was testing out an excerpt from Second Helpings for a speech competition and it was certainly effective: I remember nothing else of the speech and debate season but hearing about Jessica handle the popular girls in a Jersey mini-mall still resonates in my head a decade plus later.

The series consists of five books and originally Megan McCafferty only intended to write the first two and they stand alone very well. I also read Second Helpings before Sloppy Firsts and while slightly confusing, I think it just made me love Marcus even more. I also had the great pleasure of meeting Megan McCafferty my junior year at Pitt and she has now started a Jessica Darling in middle school series which is quite wonderful as well, even though it differs from the originally established timeline.

Sloppy Firsts Synopsis

When her best friend, Hope Weaver, moves away from Pineville, New Jersey, hyperobservant sixteen-year-old Jessica Darling is devastated. A fish out of water at school and a stranger at home, Jessica feels more lost than ever now that the only person with whom she could really communicate has gone. How is she supposed to deal with the boy- and shopping-crazy girls at school, her dad’s obsession with her track meets, her mother salivating over big sister Bethany’s lavish wedding, and her nonexistent love life?

Sloppy Firsts looks at Jessica’s predicament as she embarks on another year of teenage torment – from the dark days of Hope’s departure through her months as a type-A personality turned insomniac to her completely mixed-up feelings about Marcus Flutie, the intelligent and mysterious “dreg” who works his way into her heart.

Series Review

There are, thus far, 8 books about Jessica Darling. Therefore, understandably, my review cannot simply be contained to one book, each reading changes and effects how I view the books so it may be a bit garbled and I’ll try to review book by book without any spoilers, but bear with me!

Sloppy Firsts I have read only once and I did so after reading Second Helpings, the stronger of the pair, writing wise. I was introduced to Jessica after Marcus, after her sister’s wedding, and after she’s met, and discovered the truth about, Hyacinth Anastasia Wallace. All of these things take place in Sloppy Firsts but I didn’t know the full story. At the start of Sloppy Firsts, Jessica is broken, though she does her best to hide it. Her best friend Hope has moved away and while Hope does not actually physically enter the story until the end of Second Helpings, I had already met her. But her influence on Jessica’s life is profound – she is her best friend, her confidant. For a young girl to have such a strong friendship is an incredible thing to behold and when that friendship is no longer as present, depression can quickly ensue. Throughout Sloppy Firsts, Jessica must handle changing feelings, embarking on a friendship she fears Hope would disapprove of, and betrayal of her trust by a new friend. The waters of high school are choppy and Jessica must learn how to cross them safely without her navigator and first mate, Hope.

Second Helpings: My copy of Second Helpings is thoroughly beat up. I love the book, I’ve read it over and over and over again whenever I have been in need of inspiration for my own writing, or when I just want to read about characters that I love dearly. So who came up with it first, JK Rowling or Megan McCafferty? Both have a character known as “he who shall not be named” and Jessica is horribly mad at the one who walks around her high school’s halls. Her feelings have been hurt, irrevocably, she claims, and she swears to never forgive the sinner. Second Helpings is set during Jessica’s senior year and from the very start, it seems as if all hell will be breaking loose. She must deal with national tragedy (9/11), personal tragedy when a beloved family member is lost, and coming to grips with her own moral quandaries and whether or not a friendship is still a friendship if secrets are kept.

Charmed ThirdsFourth Comings: In which Jessica follows her heart and goes to her dream college and lands what she believes to be her dream job. Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings are my two least favorite books and for the longest time I would not read them. Laura had started them and was unimpressed. However, when I met Megan McCafferty, I needed a book for her to sign and so I picked up a copy of the new edition of Charmed Thirds. I will cherish it always as it bears McCafferty’s lovely looping signature and I got to meet her with some of my best college friends. However, Jessica, is just not Jessica in these two books. While Sloppy Firsts & Second Helpings cover roughly a year and a half between them, Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings span almost 8 years and everything feels so rushed.

Perfect Fifths: When I went to hear Megan McCafferty speak, she read aloud from the recently released Perfect Fifths and I was hooked. It was the first time we the readers get Marcus’ point of view and WOOHOO!!! I powered through Charmed Thirds & Fourth Comings just to get to the part Megan McCafferty read in the dimly lit auditorium of Frick on my beloved Pitt’s campus. As the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series did years later, the fifth book takes place when the main characters are in their late twenties. And it is pure literary gold. It’s an ending, without being final but also without fully answering all the questions that have so far gone un-answered. But it is perfect, perfect for you, yes, you to enjoy.

Jessica Darling is a relatable girl for those who grew up feeling pressure in high school, fearing being misunderstood, missing their best friend, wondering when their lives would really begin and if their relationships with others were/are meaningful. Jessica, Marcus, Hope, Bridget, Percy, Bethany and even Mr. and Mrs. Darling make up an unforgettable cast of characters. As is the case with all series, there high points and low points, both within the story and the story telling but all-in-all, Jessica is a character to depend on and a role model for those who don’t quite fit in, feel a little lost or who simply want a shoulder to cry on. She’s your girl.

Series Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Sloppy Firsts Edition: Paperback • $13.99 • 9780609807903 • 304 pages • published August 2001 by Broadway Books • average Goodreads rating 3.94 out of 5 • series finished April 2010

Megan McCafferty’s Website

Sloppy Firsts on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Sloppy Firsts

Jessica Darling

Fiction, Historical, Photography/Art

The War Bride’s Scrapbook by Caroline Preston

Each year for Christmas, my boss at the bookstore lets each of us pick out a book for our Christmas present. It is SO hard to narrow it down to just one, but this year, The War Bride’s Scrapbook screamed my name.

Synopsis

Lila Jerome has never been very lucky in love. She has always been more interested in studying architecture and, more recently, supporting the war bond effort on the home front. But in the fall of 1943, a chance spark with a boarder in her apartment sets Lila on a course that shakes up all her ideas about romance.

Lila is intoxicated by Perry Weld, the charismatic army engineer who’s about to ship out to the European front, and it isn’t long before she discovers the feeling is mutual. After just a few weeks together, caught up in the dramatic spirit of the times and with Perry’s departure date fast approaching, the two decide to elope. In a stunning kaleidoscope of vibrant ephemera, Lila boldly attempts to redefine her life in America as she navigates the heartache and longing of a marriage separated by an ocean and a war.

Review

This is not your typical WWII historical fiction novel. It is nothing like The Book Thief, The Nightingale, Code Name Verity, Salt to the Seaetc. It is the story of the American homefront, a story with many similar elements to stories that my grandmother tells my sister and I about what life was like in Philadelphia during the Second World War. And, if you have a chance to flip through the pages of The War Bride’s Scrapbook, it is, in fact, a scrapbook. It is not laid out like a traditional novel and is beautiful in it’s full-color ephemera splendor.

While I am a frequent reader of graphic novels, this is my first “scrapbook” book and it is a format I would be excited to read again. The storytelling is done primarily with letters between Lila and Perry as most of the scrapbook is dedicated to their time apart during the war. At first I was concerned that I would find the pacing choppy, but it is clear that either Caroline Preston is, herself, an avid scrapbooker, or, more likely, an expert storyteller who can work her craft in a very unique medium.

Given that it is Lila’s scrapbook, we, the readers, get ample insight not only into her head-space during the war, but also of society’s as a whole as she remarks on the activities of her friends and family. Perry is a character of contradictions, which adds to the point that he and Lila barely knew/know each other. There are moments of laughter, particularly when characters come together out of need, necessity or shear coincidence. And, my post 2017 understanding of women’s rights feminist self is very excited about the fact that Lila is her own person, her own character, and is not reliant on Perry for her happiness.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Hardcover • $29.99 • 9780061966927 • 224 pages • published December 2017 by Ecco Press • average Goodreads rating 4 out of 5 stars • read in January 2018

Caroline Preston’s Website

The War Bride’s Scrapbook on Goodreads

Get a Copy of The War Bride’s Scrapbook

War Bride's Scrapbook

 

Fiction, Historical

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Given that the BBC is doing a miniseries of The Miniaturist for the holidays, I thought it a pertinent review for today! A few weeks ago, I admitted to owning a Kindle. For Christmas a few years ago, my father gave me a Kindle – yes, I finally gave in and accepted that some of my favorite authors might only publish eBooks (thank you Viv Daniels/Diana Peterfreund…) and if I wanted to read them, I’d have to suffer through reading them on my laptop or phone (which is far too bright for night reading) so I gave in – I now own an eReader and The Miniaturist is my first electronically read novel. It’s an odd sensation.

Synopsis

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office – leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella’s life changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist – an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways…

Johannes’s gift helps Nella pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand – and fear – the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation… or the architect of their destruction?

Review

At first, I was very excited about The Miniaturist. I was intrigued by the plot line and the potentially interesting character of the miniaturist, all sorts of wonderful things to look forward to being promised, but never quite delivered. The Miniaturist is extremely well written, but never really developed. Jessie Burton introduces her readers to a myriad of interesting characters, and then does nothing with them. Events unfold, but nothing changes. No one grows. And a story cannot be successful without change and growth, nothing happens without change or growth. Yes, characters die, it’s pretty much inevitable given the circumstances, but Nella, our main character, does not change or grow, even though she claims she has. We’re not given enough background or knowledge of how her experiences have changed her to know that she is, in fact, any different, or any less irritating.

Nella is married off to a man for his money to save her family from destitution, a common thread in 17th century life in Europe. The man is older and kind and doesn’t force himself upon her (immediately this should point a flashing arrow towards the inevitable plot “twist”) and she manages to adjust to life in Amsterdam and deal with her cold sister-in-law and unpleasant acquaintances. Along the way, Johannes, her husband, gives her a cabinet to fill with miniatures of their life – so Nella enlists the services of the miniaturist to help her populate the cabinet. But it becomes clear, and more than little creepy how much the woman knows about Nella’s life, but the character and all her mysteries never really become known, they remain a mystery – which is completely aggravating as it means that the woman driving the plot never really “shows up”.

Any other part of Nella’s life would have been far more interesting, any other part of any of the characters’ lives would have been more interesting. How did Marin wind up so cold? How did she and Otto really connect? Why did all the interesting bits happen “off-screen”? I thought I loved this book with its flowy words and articulate sentences, dynamic dialogue, and unspoken understandings. Two days later, I realized why it felt so off balance. Nothing really happened, we got a snapshot into a few months of a young girl’s life in which she didn’t really do much until her actions no longer mattered.

Rating: 5 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9780062306845 • 432 pages • originally published August 2014, this edition published June 2015 by Ecco Press • average Goodreads rating 3.58 out of 5 • read in February 2015

Jessie Burton’s Website

The Miniaturist on Goodreads

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